When I taught Hamlet some years ago to a high school class in Atlanta, a student voiced surprise that Ophelia, a woman deeply in love with Hamlet, committed suicide. It prompted a class discussion about how friends experience great pain when they see a loved one suffering.
Such is the case of Rose Balestero in The Wrong Man directed by Alfred Hitchcock, who informs us at the beginning of the film that everything we are about to see is true.
Rose is the wife of Manny Balestero, a musician in the prestigious Stork Club in New York City. He enjoys his work, but is consistently in debt because of his small paycheck. When his wife needs money to have her wisdom teeth extracted, he goes to a life insurance company to borrow money against his wife’s policy. It is here that things fall apart. Several office workers identify Manny as the thief who robbed the life insurance company twice before. They summon the police and Manny is arrested on suspicion of robbery. In truth, their identification of Manny is faulty, but the witnesses claim they are sure that he is the robber.
Although the witnesses are not reliable, they cast aspersions on Manny. There is great emotional upheaval in the life of his family when Manny is incarcerated. Sadly, Rose eventually falls into deep depression because of the stress her husband is enduring. She feels his emotional pain so much that it causes her to lose touch with reality. Although Manny is eventually exonerated of the crime when the real perpetrator of the robbery is apprehended and clearly identified, Rose’s depression lingers for a number of years before she mentally recovers.
Having empathy for another human being is a classic Jewish sensibility, especially when dealing with the relationship between spouses. A great twentieth century sage and doer of good deeds, Rabbi Aryeh Levine, was known to be an exemplar of a person who truly cared about others and totally identified with their pain.
The Talmud tells us to love one’s wife as himself and honor and respect her more than himself. When Rabbi Levine’s wife felt pain her leg, they went to the doctor together. When the physician asked, “what can I do for you,” the rabbi responded: “my wife’s foot is hurting us.” He fully identified with his wife’s suffering because he viewed her as part of him. Our tradition tells us that a man’s wife is like part of his own body, and, therefore, husband and wife feel the distress of the other.
Empathy does not only relate to the relationship of one spouse to another. It is even a requirement in Jewish jurisprudence. Maimonides writes that only a person who has children can be appointed to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, in order to insure a proper judgment. Maimonides felt that a judge must have the perspective of a parent, combining justice and mercy, if he is to judge wisely and compassionately.
Mendel Kalmenson, in an article on friendship, quotes the words of the Lubavitcher Rebbe on what it means to be empathetic and a good friend: “A friend is someone in whose presence you can think aloud without worrying about being taken advantage of. A friend is someone who suffers with you when you are in pain and rejoices in your joy. A friend is someone who looks out for you, and always has your best interests in mind. In fact, a true friend is like an extension of yourself.” The Sages inform us that spouses are one’s best friends. Clearly Rose Balestero is her husband’s best friend for she acutely feels his pain.
Furthermore, Kalmenson observes: “Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone else; empathy is feeling bad with someone else.” Rose Balestero feels the pain of Manny, her husband, and it is overwhelming.
Empathy is good when it does not overwhelm us. If we can feel the anguish of loved ones, and still maintain our emotional equilibrium, then ultimately, we will feel their joy.